Worshipping in Silence--a Ministry for the Deaf : Communication: The Anaheim-based program was founded to give the deaf a home in the bosom of Christianity and to help break down barriers between the hearing and the non-hearing.
The choir sang with its hands.
Eyeing their director for cues, the six performers moved their fingers in graceful midair patterns, forming the words to “He Who Began a Good Work” as the congregation of Anaheim First Christian Church sang along.
But the choir, making its inaugural appearance, was silent. All of its members are deaf.
The Hands of Praise Deaf Ministry was started to give deaf people a home in the bosom of Christianity and to enlighten congregants who might otherwise think that such people don’t belong.
“We have a responsibility to meet the needs of everyone we can,” said Bob Kuest, senior pastor of the nondenominational church with 500 members. “The deaf are often forgotten. When we sing and worship together, there is a sense of unity. It bridges gaps.”
The ministry began as the dream of Bonnie Rennie, 39, a longtime church member who got the idea about four years ago.
“For some reason,” she said, “I just had a burden to start a deaf ministry. I don’t know why; I’d never known or met a deaf person. It must have been the Lord.”
Soon she would come to know a deaf person better than she had ever expected. To learn sign language, Rennie took a course taught by a deaf man in Fullerton. The two fell in love and eventually were married. And today Bonnie and Bill Rennie run the Hands of Praise Deaf Ministry from an office provided by the church in an adjacent social hall.
“In deaf people’s lives, there’s a lot of misunderstanding,” Bill Rennie said through an interpreter. “My goal? Like the German wall, we need to break down the communication barriers between deaf and hearing people.”
The Rennies are attempting to do that in a number of ways. Using a church van, they make regular visits to the homes of area deaf people to provide counseling and help give them with such basic items as food and clothing. They offer a sign-language course at the church and founded a local deaf people’s club to help them socialize. And recently they started the church’s first all-deaf choir.
“It’s a myth that deaf people don’t like music,” Bonnie Rennie explained. “They feel it through the vibrations; it’s a way of expressing themselves.”
As a result of their efforts, the Rennies said, as many as 35 deaf people have begun attending services regularly, including several who have officially joined the congregation. Three months ago, Bonnie Rennie said, the church celebrated its first deaf baptism. “We want (deaf people) to be able to know the love of Jesus just like any hearing person can,” she said.
Most members of the congregation said they welcome the participation of deaf people in church activities. Sunday mornings generally find the deaf churchgoers sitting in the front row while Bonnie Rennie translates the day’s sermon into sign language.
“It adds another dimension to the service,” said Charlene Wilson, a church member for six years. “I think it’s wonderful.”
Rod Baker, a 30-year member, said: “I don’t understand the signing, but I appreciate seeing it. It’s another way of observing; it shows emotion.”
Indeed, the emotion seemed palpable on the recent Sunday morning when the Hands of Praise deaf choir rose to give its inaugural performance. Earlier it had practiced in an adjoining room. “To get the words, watch me ,” Bonnie Rennie signed to the choir members, some of whom had expressed nervousness.
But as they rose to sing their song in the silent language of their hands, the smiles on their faces exuded a newfound confidence that many later acknowledged feeling.
“He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it,” the choir signed while the voices of the congregation rose in accompaniment.
Moving in unison, the silent singers seemed to be dancing with their hands as their fingers traced rhythmic, arc-like patterns in the air.
“It’s wonderful,” choir member Adriana Quezada, 18, said later through an interpreter, speaking of her experiences at the church. “Every Sunday at 8 a.m. I want to be here. I feel completely accepted.”
Gabriel Quezada, her 20-year-old brother and a fellow choir member, had similar sentiments. “I used to be embarrassed about standing up and doing things like this,” he signed. Three months ago, Quezada became the first deaf congregant to be baptized at the church. “Now I feel better,” he said. “We’re like a family. I wanted to change my life, and the deaf ministry has helped me do that.”